Regional Programs > Africa > Next Story

WEAVE's ink@boiling point:
A Selection of 21st Century Black Women's Writing from the Tip of Africa


Weave's selection of black women's writing offers fascinating reconfigurations of the genres of short story, poetry and drama. While these categories broadly organize the anthology, the eclecticism of the writing demonstrates how the creative impulse can shift conventional barriers and create new ways of seeing, new ways of writing, and, for readers, new ways of thinking about their world.

Past and present are constantly connected in this anthology. One of Beverley Jansen's poems challenges the reader with an insistent question: "Is our collective recall/ so brief and fragile/ that we unlearn/ so easily/ the lessons of our pain"? Stressing the urgency of "collective recall", the anthology counterpoints work written in the eighties with writing produced in the nineties to emphasize that our past will always shape our present. Gertrude Fester explicitly shows in "Two sides of the story", her selection of prison writings, contrasted by some of her poems dealing with positions of power in the democracy era, that the past can never be sealed off as that which we have left behind. In the face of a belief—currently almost a national obsession—that South Africans live in an age that is distinctly post-apartheid, these writings provide a much-needed intervention.

At the same time that the anthology insists on the relevance of past to present, it is often joyously optimistic. Beverley Jansen's story about a young man who is surprised by the humanity of the whites in a typical rural context is a case in point. Avoiding the glib myth of a reconciled South Africa, the story suggests that the prejudices of both the formerly oppressed and of the former oppressor are deeply ingrained. "New" relationships don't simply happen; they are constructed painfully out of past ones.

One of the successes of the anthology is its inclusion of a range of themes. While the anthology includes eleven writers, their voices testify to a variety of social, emotional and psychic experiences. These voices do not speak univocally about what is often reduced to "black women's experience". The exploration of, for example, learning to drive, of aging, of death, or of spirituality, makes it clear that these writers are concerned with the breadth of human experience. They write boldly and persuasively. Inventively using humour, pathos or outrage, they refuse to confine their imaginative vision simply to testifying to an oppression by patriarchy, race and gender.

Mavis Smallberg's exultant celebration of childhood springs to mind here. Recalling a joy made palpable in her language, she writes: "The rhythm of being ten is the/ Bounce bounce bounce/And the slap slap slap/Of the thud of the rope on the road/ As you skip and you hop/And you duck and you dive/And you swlng and you soar/ And you scream for more!"

Many of the writings also deal with the everyday, with the comic fragments that are so central to life experiences, even though they are often not deemed adequate subjects for creative attention. In her short piece on learning to drive, Carmen Myles Raizenberg explores an anxiety about driving with humour and compassion, while another prose piece deals with a new house-owner's interesting encounter with a dagga-consuming mouse. It would be misleading to see these prose works as providing light relief from the seriousness elsewhere. What the anthology does is to break down the conventionally rigid barrier between what is acceptably literary and what is not. In this way it helps to open up paths towards a more expansive understanding of how multi-faceted meaningful social and personal experiences really are.

While the writings in the anthology demand to be read from the perspective of their human relevance, the politics that shapes the writers' creative struggles insistently resonates in the stories they tell, language they use and the worlds they open up. Poems such as "Inheritance" by Shelley Barry, "Recognition" by Mavis Smallberg and Weaam Williams' "At peace with the world" are but a few poems which bring to the surface another prominent theme in the anthology, the excavation of family and ancestral ties. These pieces reflect a reawakening of pride in who we are, shaped significantly by where we come from, particularly as South Africans. Elsewhere, a sense of community among women is invoked as an invaluable healing force in the face of social and emotional suffering. Malika Connlng Ndiovu's "Gigi's Hands" traces both women's common suffering and their capacity for growth in relation to a supportive women's lineage.

Deela Khan makes visible the trauma that is often hidden in relation to writing with her acute observation of a woman's unnoticed pain at a writing workshop: ''What does one say to a fellow being who has suffered so much psychic and physical abuse; a co-artist whose agony is perpetually resuscitated with the flick of a switch, with the start of a dream". Many of the stories and poems in the anthology try to unearth experiences and emotions that seem to defy language and verbal expression.

Illustrating a determination to interpret raw experiences, they challenge the idea that acute suffering can lead only to silence and submission. Instead they insist that writing about these experiences is an invaluable act of empowerment. The testimonial "I" in many of the stories is insistent and forceful. In Pat Fahrenfort's *My First Job", we hear a historically-subjugated yet vocal "I" telling a story that is usually told by others. By telling her own story, she lays claim to it and asserts her right to interpret her own experience.

This empowerment also involves an emphasis on address. Refusing to accept that women's writing should target only other black women, the writers often make it clear that they are taking up positions of authority in relation to those who have historically oppressed them. The poem, "Black Woman Poet: The Eternal Outsider" registers this with its powerful assertion of a defiant and independent "self" that is often seen only in terms of stereotypes: Ken jy vir my?/ (Do you know me?) Kaffir-Coolie Meid/ Hotnot-Moor/ Kaapse Boesman, Dogsbody Half-breed, Vitriolic Afrikan-Know-alI!"

Even in writings where a concern with gender is not explicit, we are reminded that, as black women, these writers have faced particular oppressive circumstances. As a group excluded from the worlds of power and privilege that underpin creative writing, black women have had to overcome myriad difficulties. This is not only because they defy the mainstream's dictates of what is and what is not acceptably literary, but because they face singular obstacles in finding publishers and markets for their work.

This anthology testifies to the determined spirit of those who believe that, in the face of the dominant voices that seek to drown them out and the social relationships that work to suppress them, they do have the authority to speak assertively, they do possess the vision to write what is new and compelling and they will discover ways of communicating with their readers.

Dr Desiree Lewis
English Studies
School of Language, Culture and Communication
University of Natal Pietermaritzburg

To order a copy of ink@boiling point, please contact:

Clarke's Bookshop
211 Long Street
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa
Tel +27-21-423-5739
Fax +27-21-423-6441
Clarke's Bookshop